The Advent of the Aerotropolis, and Why Material Handlers Should Pay Close Attention

Chicago rail-yardHere’s a neat fact for you: 90% of America’s population lives within a few hours’ drive of an ocean or a Great Lake. That’s not just a random coincidence, or simply a preference on the part of Americans for nice, strong sea-breezes. It has everything to do with economics. The United States was originally founded along the fastest-moving trade routes available at the time: namely, the seaport harbors, river-ports, and lakeside cities where goods could be transported and delivered to market with relative quickness. There’s a historical reason why the vast majority of immigrants to this country arrived by way of New York City: it simply has one of the finest natural harbors on Earth. Likewise, with the sudden and seismic growth of the transcontinental railroads of the mid-19th century, cities like our own beautiful Chicago came suddenly into their own as epicenters for freight and transport.

Here’s a lesson in city planning they may not have taught you in high school: generally speaking, a city is only as resilient as its ability to import, export, and warehouse freight and material goods. Thus in one sense, the materials handling industry is responsible for the economic well-being of the community that surrounds it. Next time you’re at dinner or the bar and you want a friend to help spot you part of the check, feel free to remind them that the material handling industry (i.e. you) is what keeps said restaurant and/or bar in booming business.

Now, think of some of the more recent developments in terms of material handling. Think about the hundreds of international cargo flights that transit each month between China and the United States, or between Europe and the Middle East. Think about how this collective phenomenon allows for overnight delivery of some of the most valuable goods and services that the world produces. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that a full $5 trillion in goods makes its way to market by way of airport. Now, consider how this level of instant access to valuables begins to shape not only an economy, but the demographics of a country. Simply put, the cities that invest in major airports – the ones that dare to make the effort at becoming “aerotropolises” – are the New York harbors and Chicago rail-yards of the 21st century.  While the heavy-duty import/export items are still delivered via port, the lighter – and frequently more valuable – products are delivered via plane.

What all material handlers need to grasp is the lesson that companies such as UPS, FedEx, and Amazon have long since learned: the increasing need to do quick turnaround business with airports. Proximity to major airport hubs, as well as increased automation and other time-saving strategies, will become ever increasingly important factors for the long-term profitability of the material handling industry. It’s a lesson that’s written clear in the sky, for all to see, in the contrail plumes of the UPS plane passing overhead…

Listening Skills: Incorporating Customer Feedback into Product Design

In a business like ours, where we make materials handling equipment for companies of all stripes and sizes of operation, listening to customer feedback has been a key ingredient to our long-term success. A lot of examples come readily to mind, but there’s one story in particular I sometimes like to “trot out” to illustrate my point.

The L4F series is one of Liftomatic’s high-volume, fork-mounted drum handlers. For 20+ years, it’s been a sturdy workhorse, commonly used in warehouses where there’s a very high level of to-and-fro traffic. Customers like how it can handle rimmed steel, fiber, and plastic drums alike, and how well it performs in situations where non-stop pallet change-out, conveyor work, or truck and container loading is required.

At any rate, there was a time when we shipped our L4F series to customers that we included a portable stand for the drum handler, welded up with simple angle iron into the shape of a box; it propped the unit up when not in use.  For more than 20 years this was common practice.  Our sales people would return with fun stories from customers who repeatedly thanked them for “the table” – since customers would frequently use the support stand itself as an extra worktable. So far, so good, right?

But detailed conversations with some of our clients told us another story: while the shipping stand worked great, it had little overall benefit on their shop floors. Here’s why: since the L4F was built to “make the rounds” of a warehouse on any given shipping day, it saw a ton of action and a lot of heavy-lifting. But whenever there was “downtime” for the unit, that pesky support stand was needed. And as we mentioned before, people in the warehouse would frequently mistake (or misappropriate) the support stand as an extra “worktable”. Needless to say, if the operation was big enough, locating the support stand to prop up the L4F could become a long, boring task.

We started asking around at other plants and warehouses with whom we did business, and sure enough, customers using the L4F found it far more efficient simply to place the L4F in a group of four drums once they were done, back the forklift out of the unit, and steady the unit till the next time it was needed. Also, since the height of the L4F was not the same from front to back, a safe place was needed (be it a group of drums or the stand) so the unit didn’t tip over whenever it wasn’t busy being gainfully employed.

We held an informal meeting with several users to brainstorm a solution. One particularly astute plant foreman asked a simple question.  “Why don’t we just change the back skirts on the unit to make the overall height the same from front to back?  By doing that the unit would stand alone and require no stand, no group of four drums or any other type of support when not in use.”


The sales force brought this back to Liftomatic’s engineers.  The engineers worked up a couple designs.  After speaking with several drum manufacturers to see how the changes might impact the point of contact of the L4F and the sidewall of the drums, the new design was prototyped and manufactured.  We let the selfsame foreman do the testing on the prototype. The result?  It worked better. More sidewall support for the drums allowed the groups of four drums to hang more vertically, thereby taking additional pressure off the Parrot-Beak clamps, and allowing for better downward placement on the conveyors, the truck floors, the pallets, or wherever else.

Feedback is essential, but an ongoing conversation between suppliers and customers is even better. In the case of the L4F, it improved a premier drum handling product, increased productivity, and yielded benefits in the material handling costs and efficiencies of the overall routine – all of this while at the same time cutting unnecessary costs of production for the product. Talk about a win-win for everyone.

We pride ourselves on our ability to listen to our customers. Not just once during the initial sales-pitch, but ongoingly. It’s how you build relationships. It’s how you build reliability and forge trust. Contact us today with your drum-handling order and find out for yourself how far we take into account your own, individual considerations.

Of course, the only down-side to this story is that customers have to buy their own impromptu maintenance tables now…